WHATEVER BECAME OF THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH? Now it's the Commonwealth of Nations, a diverse group whose diplomats gather before international meetings to discuss issues and adopt informal positions. In the words of its secretary-general, it `helps the world negotiate.'

Next month the heads of the Commonwealth of Nations will hold their biennial gathering in Nassau, the Bahamas.

Is this association -- whose main purpose is to foster cooperation among states currently or formerly affiliated with the British Crown -- an anachronism? Is it a remnant of an imperial age with little point in a world riven by East-West disputes, terrorism, and nuclear deterrence?

Sir Shridath Ramphal, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, thinks not. Interviewed in his office, once the sitting room of Queen Mary, Sir Shridath explained why.

How useful is the Commonwealth today?

I think it has become more useful and more relevant as it has devolved from the British Commonwealth to the Commonwealth, because that meant a shift from an Anglo-centric Commonwealth to a more realistic community of countries.

What has emerged is a grouping of [49] countries so diverse that their very variety is a source of strength. It is the fact that a group of different countries can work together in a habitual and broadly harmonious manner that makes it unique.

There is almost no process of harmonization taking place at the international level. In the Commonwealth we have a facility that allows a big sample of the international community a better chance of harmonizing views.

It is true that the Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world; but it can help the world to negotiate. That is our primary responsibility now. We [also] have special obligations and responsibilities regarding cooperation among Commonwealth countries.

Can you give a couple of specific examples of where the Commonwealth has been useful?

Perhaps the most significant and recent of these developments is the work that a Commonwealth group of eight countries [set up in 1981] did in the context of international economic reform. What they have been attempting to do is to develop approaches to common policies in the areas of money and finance. I don't hesitate to claim that that work is a valid contribution despite the absence of any dramatic achievement on the international level because of two things.

First of all, I believe progress in these areas is going to be slow and by small steps. Second, because the Commonwealth is about the only group that now reaches across the divides of North and South and does any work together.

Is the United Nations too big?

The UN is so vast that nothing is happening. There is no discussion in the General Assembly. At the global level, the dialogue has virtually ended. Our job is to use the Commonwealth facility of bringing North-South views together and explore . . . . ways that stand some chance of commanding support on a global basis.

Can we look at some of these issues, one of them being South Africa, which is no longer a member of the Commonwealth?

That's right. It was expelled In 1961.

You have been a little bit vague in asking for economic sanctions. Are you actually advocating disinvestment, rather than no further investment?

I'm advocating that the Commonwealth should be in the vanguard of the movement for economic pressure on South Africa.

It should come through selective sanctions . . . not the comprehensive and mandatory sanctions for which African countries have been calling, but sanctions selected with a view to their effectiveness, and programmed so as to provide incentives for South Africa to start the process of real change.

The vast majority of Commonwealth countries voluntarily applies economic sanctions against South Africa. India was the very first many years ago. Canada and New Zealand, I believe, will go in the direction of the disinvestment process as this gets on the way in the United States.

What do you do about such places as Zimbabwe, which depends economically on South Africa?

I believe that if the world were to embark on a process of mandatory sanctions against South Africa, that those countries would all participate in them to the full. South Africa may take reprisals against them . . . . [but] that will not deter African countries.

I am curious as to what the Commonwealth did about the Idi Amin regime in Uganda?

The Commonwealth became the first intergovernmental institution in the world to speak out against Amin.

And in this it was breaking new ground, because here was a member state which was violating human rights on so massive a scale. The Commonwealth accepted my proposition that it should not be constrained by its usual and valid reluctance to meddle in internal affairs on the basis that when the abuse of human rights became as gross as it did become in Uganda, it ceased to be a matter of internal concern only. That was a very important step and one that I'm very proud of.

What do you feel about the invasion of Grenada by United States troops in 1983?

The Commonwealth spoke out very strongly about Grenada. I had to take issue at that time with some Caribbean Commonwealth countries who had been part of the Grenada intervention. [After the invasion] the Commonwealth would have liked to have seen, and indeed authorized, a Commonwealth peacekeeping force of a nonmilitary character to take the place of the military -- the American and Caribbean military.

I think the rest of the world would have been mightily relieved to see a civilian peacekeeping effort put together multilaterally. That at least would have replaced one little piece of militarism in the world.

The independence of Zimbabwe was another issue I wanted to raise.

Zimbabwe was in many ways the major success story of the Commonwealth.

US President Jimmy Carter claimed some success in Zimbabwe, too.

I'm not sure there is too much in that. The Americans did help me at a particular stage in the negotiations . . . . But Zimbabwe really was made possible -- and an end of the Rhodesian crisis was made possible -- because of the Commonwealth.

[British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher was brand new -- [it was] only months after she had been elected on . . . a pro-internal settlement manifesto. It was the Commonwealth that turned her away from that through a process of dialogue that [convinced Thatcher] that the way forward in Rhodesia was for Britain to act with Commonwealth support.

Well, we were nearly at breaking point on the question of land reform and the obligation to pay compensation to white farmers who lost part of their holdings, to facilitate a process of land distribution.

Everybody agreed that there should be such a process and the [Zimbabwean] Patriotic Front was not unwilling to accept a principle of compensation. But to leave it at that without providing the means for compensation would have been to frustrate land reform and would have been only to pay lip service to the idea.

And it was at this point that I called on Kingman Brewster who was Carter's ambassador in London and asked him to intervene with [Secretary of State Cyrus] Vance and Carter for American support for an agricultural development fund that would facilitate the process of land reform. Brewster got the concurrence of Vance and Carter to that within 48 hours, and my ability to convey to Nkomo and Mugabe [the] American commitment is what turned the scales on [the latters'] acceptance of that constitutional prov ision. And perhaps it is that that the American government rightly claims some credit for. [Note: Joshua Nkomo, opposition leader in Zimbabwe, then headed one of the two guerrilla groups fighting against the government of South Rhodesia; Robert Mugabe, now prime minister of Zimbabwe, was then leader of the other major group in the Patriotic Front; Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia before independence in 1980.]

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